Admissions committees interpret undergrad grades differently from school to school, but in general, it is important to identify the issues you may face in your own application and prepare to discuss it with an admissions officer. The circumstance and specific situation you are explaining to an admissions committee is important and we want to understand your achievements as well as your challenges.
Admissions committees are looking at overall trends in grade performance, grades in specific types of courses or individual classes, and we want to understand the context around that performance so we can properly judge the significance of your performance within the context of our graduate degree program selection processes.
Overall grade trends that matter to admissions committees
- Low at the beginning, gradually improving
- High grades at the beginning, then lower overall
- What happened? Why the fall?
- Low grades in one year, but high grades in all others
- Why was that semester or year different than all the others?
- Why will this situation not repeat itself in grad school?
- High grades in all the courses unrelated to your grad school goal, but low ones in areas you will study at grad school.
- Poor science grades with great humanities or arts grades would be challenging for a PhD or PSM program in science, but probably fine for advanced degrees where the science grades are less relevant.
Low grades in specific courses
- Did you have trouble with a specific course that you just couldn’t figure out?
- Why will that not be a hindrance in grad school?
- Is getting a C- in Calculus III better than not having taken it at all?
- If you retook a course, how much improvement was there?
- If you did poorly in an important course, why didn’t you retake it?
- Are there any “prerequisites” for the grad school program that you did poorly in?
- What can or have you done to overcome that?
Context for low grades is important
What were the circumstances that influenced your undergrad performance?
- Death or serious illness in your family.
- Working a full time job while earning your degree.
- Playing varsity or competitive sports during college.
- Extreme involvement or leadership in campus activities.
Remember that grades should be just one part of a holistic review, but sometimes they are make or break for a specific program. You should consider what other parts of your application are strong and whether there is any offsetting benefit from those other credentials.
Another post provides commentary on perceptions of several students about how important are grades for grad school admission.